GLENDALE, Ariz. — Waiting for Kanler Coker every time he turns on his iPhone is a picture of him and his younger brother, Keaton, with their hands locked together on a hospital bed. Kanler’s hand is only distinguishable from his brother’s because of the lack of a hospital band on his wrist.
Keaton died of brain cancer in July 2014 at the age of 18.
“He’s my best friend,” said Coker, who doesn’t go a day without thinking about—or seeing on his lock screen—his little brother.
Coker says that’s where his determination comes from.
“Anytime I think something’s hard, I’ll just think about him and what he went through with chemo and radiation and surgeries and stuff,” said Coker. “… If he can go through that, I think I can go through this workout or whatever it is.”
Coker’s path to basketball was an unusual one. Though he’s participating in only his second season with North Carolina, he’s playing his final weekend of basketball as a senior.
That’s because before he dropped 20 pounds to compete on a basketball court, Coker was a quarterback for the Tar Heels football team for two seasons. Recruited in 2012 as a three-star pro-style quarterback, Coker’s original Division I athletic aspirations were with him wearing a helmet.
After redshirting his freshman season, Coker went on to be the backup for Marquise Williams in 2013 and Mitch Trubisky/Williams in 2014.
Coker’s collegiate football career was plagued from the start, though. During the first training camp his freshman year, he developed tendinitis in his right elbow. It was an injury that lingered and ultimately bored to death his hopes of playing football.
“I was always in the training room my whole three years of football,” said Coker. “I was in there everyday working on my elbow.”
Limitations in strength and reps took Coker into a new, uncomfortable territory.
“I was always the type that outworked everyone in high school growing up,” said Coker, “so it was hard not being able to do that because I couldn’t throw.”
The summer following the 2014-15 season, Coker decided it was time for a change, and he began to pursue another dream of his -- to play basketball at North Carolina.
Coach Roy Williams let Coker run with the basketball team for some summer practices and was eventually impressed enough to let him join as a walk-on that season. He played 16 minutes in 13 games and scored two points against Appalachian State.
Before this final season—his senior year—Coker was awarded a basketball scholarship.
Coker’s teammates say there are some moments where Coker’s football background becomes very prominent.
“Sometimes he can be in football mode in practice, always bumping into people,” said freshman guard Brandon Robinson. “… He’s unique in a good way.”
Coker, at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, also has more fun in the weight room than his teammates.
“He definitely enjoys that more,” said junior forward Aaron Rohlman. “I think he gets that from football.”
Coker guesses he can hit a one-rep max on the bench press of about 285 pounds, and that the only other players on the team who can beat that are Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks.
Coker’s odyssey through North Carolina athletics makes him unique—from jumping sports because of an elbow injury to paying his way through school for a year while he played as a walk-on for a team that was playing for a national championship in 2016.
Much has changed for Coker since signing a letter intent to play football in 2012, but the strength symbolized in a clenched hand on a hospital bed has not.
“He’s my hero.”